The European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) was founded 20 years ago as an expression of European solidarity with people in need worldwide. Since then, ECHO has provided EUR 14 billion of humanitarian assistance to victims of conflict and disasters in 140 countries. The EU as a whole is the world's biggest donor of humanitarian aid. Together, Member States and European institutions contribute more than half of official global humanitarian aid.
Over the last five years ECHO's annual budget has averaged EUR 1 billion. In 2004 ECHO became the Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid before integrating Civil Protection in 2010 for a better coordination and disaster response inside and outside Europe. In 2010, Kristalina Georgieva was appointed as the first dedicated Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response.
Increasingly, responding to the world’s natural and manmade disasters involves close cooperation between humanitarian and development actors. In the lead-up to the event, the Commissioner speaks out about ECHO’s work, the importance of building resilience into humanitarian assistance and development cooperation, and her close collaboration with European Commissioner for Development, Andris Piebalgs. Commissioner Georgieva will be participating in the European Development Days 2012.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of the European Community Humanitarian Office – ECHO. When you look back over the past 20 years, what do you view as ECHO’s most important achievements?
Kristalina Georgieva: From the perspective of the people we serve, the most important achievements are getting food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, and keeping those who need protection safe from danger. In short: saving lives and easing the suffering of millions of people. And from the perspective of European taxpayers, we do so in a very good and responsible manner.
In 2011, we supported over 120 million people in 80 countries affected by natural disasters, conflicts or human error. For those people this is the most important achievement in our work. But ECHO has also done huge service to humanity by upholding the principals that make it possible for humanitarian workers to do their job: humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence.
ECHO has demonstrated the value of partnership with United Nations organisations and NGOs that deliver life-saving activities. Our partnership with the development community is also important so that we help save lives, but also help make them worth living.
Partnership is even more important today because needs are growing. There are more frequent and devastating disasters every year. Each year, 30 to 40 countries are either in conflict, emerging from conflict or slipping into it. This means more and more people depend on our help for their survival. Partnership – especially with new and emerging donors – is the best way to cope.
Prevention and preparedness is a cornerstone of the EU’s international cooperation. What is the EU doing to support its development partners and candidate countries in this area?
The world is changing. It is more fragile – disasters are more frequent and severe, being driven by climate change. There are more risks related to urbanisation and population growth too. The only way to cut humanitarian costs in the future is to invest more in preparedness and prevention. It is economically a very smart investment. Every euro in prevention brings back EUR 4 to EUR7 insavings of damages that do not occur. Today, preparedness and prevention activities represent 8-10 % of our budget to help vulnerable communities be better prepared. We are also collaborating with European Commissioner for Development, Andris Piebalgs, on a Communication on resilience, with a view to integrating and understanding risk across all of our humanitarian and development operations.
We take the risks seriously in Europe as well: we are working with EU Member States on legislation concerning risk mapping and prevention. By 2016, we are proposing that all Member States have risk management plans in place.
The EU is supporting disaster prevention and preparedness in Haiti, which is consistently under threat from extreme weather events. What lessons have been learned from the Commission’s work in Haiti?
The earthquake inHaitishowed us just how devastating a large-scale disaster can be when a country is unprepared. Haiti’s biggest problem was that for decades it suffered from lack of good governance and institutions. The most important lesson is that we need to support Haiti to build institutions and boost the government’s capacity to manage its resources and risks.
This is because countries that are better prepared and have stronger institutions are far more resilient to disasters. Compare what happened inHaitiand what happened in Chile soon after. The Chilean earthquake was much stronger than the Haitian one – but 500 people died compared to more than 230 000 in Haiti. That is 500 people too many, but the difference is huge. The difference is development – development is the best resilience builder.
On 31 July you made an appeal to the international community regarding the worsening humanitarian crisis in Syria. What has been the result of that appeal? It seems unlikely the Syrian regime would respect ‘humanitarian pauses’ or international humanitarian law. What is the solution?
Things have been moving since 31 July. We are working closely with the United Nations and partners in the Syrian Humanitarian Forum. The number of people in need is huge – it has doubled since July. The Forum is focusing on health, food, livelihoods, infrastructure, rehabilitation, community services, education, and shelter in affected areas. We have made some progress, but not enough. The speed with which the situation is deteriorating dwarfs our efforts. We need more space for humanitarian workers and more visas for international staff.
The solution is a political one. The fighting must stop and governance arrangements for the country must be put in place. In the absence of a political solution we have a big responsibility to relieve the suffering of the affected people. The international community is sending a very simple message to the government and the opposition: As parties involved in a civil war, they must respect the laws of war together with international and humanitarian law.
We also need to get more help into the country. We have substantially increased our funding forSyriaboth inside the country and to support refugees fleeing into neighbouring countries. It is morally the right thing to do.
The European Commission has committed EUR 119 million; with the Member States, the contribution of Europe is EUR 200 million. Funding is going to help internally displaced people, children under five years old, women and to the refugee camps inJordan,Turkey, andLebanon.
Another area besieged by conflict is Sudan and South Sudan. People living in Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile States are surrounded by fighting. Already, more than 200 000 people have fled to South Sudan and Ethiopia. What is the EU doing to support these people and their communities?
The situation continues to worsen for the refugees and those trapped by the fighting and suffering from hunger, disease, and poverty. I am particularly concerned about the difficulties that humanitarian workers face in doing their job. It is vital that assistance reaches all people in need. Another challenge is the current rainy season, which poses logistical challenges – blocking roads and preventing aid from getting to where it is needed.
We are monitoring the situation very closely – we have experts in the region and inBrussels, and are in constant dialogue with others in the international community.
We have been active in this region with humanitarian aid since the mid-1990s and our commitment to providing assistance remains strong. We have been funding agencies that are bringing essential aid to the refugees, the internally displaced and the returnees: aid such as basic healthcare, clean water, sanitation, food assistance, and protection. Last July we increased our humanitarian aid forSudanand South Sudan by EUR 40 million, mainly to address the sharp rise in the number of refugees fleeing the conflict in South Kordofan and Blue Nile and seeking refuge inUnityStateand Western Upper Nile, inSouth Sudan. This brings the Commission's humanitarian aid budget to EUR 127 million for the two countries this year.
Attacks on aid workers have been increasing over recent years. Many are being deliberately targeted. More than 50% of the attacks happen when humanitarian workers are travelling by road. What can be done to better protect them?
The most important protection comes from following our principles: humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. But we also work with our partners on specific measures to protect aid workers, such as funding for protection in camps, better training, and security management projects. In the most dangerous places, such as theDemocratic Republic of the CongoandDarfur, we fund helicopters and planes to bring humanitarian workers and supplies because ground transportation is too dangerous. This is expensive, but it is the only way we can ensure the delivery of assistance and protect the staff.
ECHO also supports INSO, the International NGO Safety Organisation, which administers NGO Safety Offices on the ground to support our partners in violent or insecure situations through, among other things, providing high quality real-time information and analysis of local security conditions.
The famine in the Horn of Africa, described as the greatest humanitarian crisis that the world is facing, continues. As the largest donor of humanitarian aid, what is the EU doing to help build the resilience of the affected populations? Why is this situation so deeply rooted and persistent, despite international efforts?
The hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa was dramatic in its scale and impact. It was triggered by the combination of conflict, displacement, food insecurity, drought, and high food prices. More than 13 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance and the EU responded early and generously. In 2011, when this crisis was at its peak, the EU provided EUR 791 million in humanitarian aid to the Horn of Africa. The European Commission alone allocated EUR 181 million in relief funding last year. Overall we helped 6.5 million people whose lives were threatened by hunger and the effects of drought.
The situation has changed considerably since the worst days of this crisis. Food security in the Horn of Africa has somewhat improved, partly due to a relatively good rainy season, better harvests in some areas in the region, and the impact of sustained humanitarian assistance. However, vulnerability remains high in all areas of the Horn. We cannot afford to lower our guard.
Humanitarian aid alone cannot avert disasters, nor can it address their underlying causes. We can apply a life-saving bandage to the wound, but we cannot cure the disease. And yet, I believe that while we cannot prevent droughts, we can make sure that they do not lead to hunger and other disasters. This is why we work in close partnership with our colleagues in the development community, building bridges between relief, rehabilitation, and development and working to improve the resilience of the vulnerable communities of the Horn.
I am proud that together with Commissioner Andris Piebalgs we launched the EU's Supporting the Horn of Africa's Resilience (SHARE) initiative. It is a joint humanitarian-development approach to improve the ability of people, communities and countries to face persistent and acute emergencies. With a package of more than EUR 270 million, SHARE aims to boost resilience in the Horn of Africa by addressing recovery from drought: that means building on emergency interventions; strengthening the livelihood opportunities of agro-pastoral communities; improving public services; and boosting the response to crises.
The number of undernourished people in the world has been on the rise since 1995. Hunger and political fragility often go hand in hand. What is the EU doing to tackle global hunger and under-nutrition? Is it possible to keep this issue at the top of the international development agenda as a long-term development priority?
Hunger affects almost 1 billion people – more than ever before. This rise is linked to population growth and the increasing frequency and intensity of natural and man-made disasters, which reduce the capacity of the most vulnerable to get sufficient and adequate food to remain healthy. We are at the tipping point. We need to take the right decisions now to ensure the food and nutrition security of future generations.
We at the European Commission are committed to taking these decisions, which is why we emphasise food and nutrition security in our policies. To respond to the needs of the hungriest and most vulnerable populations, the European Commission delivers humanitarian food assistance and is one of the world's major donors in this field. In 2011, the Commission provided EUR 509 million for humanitarian food assistance and nutrition projects through 57 partner organisations in 47 countries.
Since 2010, we've been rolling out our Humanitarian Food Assistance Policy, through which we've helped around 100 million people in the world who face acute food insecurity. We are also enthusiastic and vocal supporters of the new Food Assistance Convention, which is expected to enter into force in January 2013.
However, sustainable food security can only be achieved through a comprehensive approach that tackles both the immediate and underlying causes of food scarcity. This approach depends on the joint efforts of the humanitarian and the development communities, governments, and international organisations, to build resilience and enable the affected populations to help themselves. This is particularly relevant for the regions where fragility is compounded by climate change – for instance in the Sahel or in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel region of Africa.
With my fellow Commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, we have launched two initiatives to achieve sustainable food and nutrition security and build resilience: AGIR (Alliance Globale pour l'Initiative Resilience) for the Sahel and SHARE (Supporting the Horn of Africa's Resilience) for the Horn of Africa.
Yemen is the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula, with about 44 % of its population hungry and under-nourished. How is the EU supporting the Yemeni people? Why is it important to extend humanitarian assistance toYemen?
ECHO’s motto is ‘helping where needed the most’. And inYemen, our help is more and more necessary. This poorest of the Arab countries has long struggled with immense challenges: water shortages, internal conflict and displacement, and profound insecurity. Despite these challenges, the country has been a generous host to hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Horn of Africa, whose number has swollen further due to the hunger crisis in the Horn and the conflict inSomalia.
Over the last year, new problems have compounded the existing ones, including the new conflict and the drought that affects the whole region. This means that now humanitarian aid is more necessary than ever. And, as anywhere where our help is needed to save lives, we act.
For 2012, we have allocated EUR 40 million forYemen. This money is helping those affected by food insecurity and armed clashes. Our priority is the most vulnerable: children, the internally displaced, and refugees.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released its ‘Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation’ (SREX). The report predicts increasing heat waves, droughts, floods and storms worldwide. What is the EU doing to support communities at home and abroad to become more resilient in the face of extreme events?
The SREX report is yet another sobering reminder that our world is changing and becoming more vulnerable as a result of climate change. We can despair – or we can prepare.
At the European Commission, we prefer the second option. This is why my team has moved from only responding to crises to anticipating them by assessing risks, investing in early warning systems, and boosting resilience. In our humanitarian work, we focus more on prevention and preparedness, addressing the underlying causes of vulnerability and building up response capacities.
We are also building stronger links between our humanitarian work and development aid – for instance, by investing in early recovery and improving our coordination. In this way we make sure we are working towards the same goal – to reduce the risk of disasters, to make communities more resilient, and to avoid damage.
Let me again raise our joint humanitarian-development initiatives for boosting the resilience of the Sahel (the ‘Alliance Globale pour l'Initiative Résilience’) and for the Horn of Africa (SHARE, Supporting the Horn of Africa's Resilience). These are two regions suffering enormous crises due to the effects of climate change. Our initiatives work on the root causes of food insecurity and malnutrition, and increase regional and national capacities to withstand the risks of disasters.
The international community is re-engaging withMyanmar– one of the poorest countries in the world. The future could be bright. Myanmar is a natural land bridge between South and Southeast Asia, sitting at the crossroads of trade between India, China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It is also resource rich. What is the EU doing to support the people of Myanmar?
The EU wants to encourage the momentum for change in Burma/Myanmar so that its citizens can live better, more freely, and in peace. European Commissioner for Development Piebalgs announced earlier this year a generous assistance package of EUR 150 million for the next two years, which almost doubles EU aid since 1996. These funds will finance projects in the areas of health, education, and livelihood activities.
We also continue our humanitarian work in the country, where we have had a humanitarian office since 2005. We focus on assistance to victims of natural disasters (e.g. Cyclone Giri which struck in October 2010) to which Burma/Myanmar is very susceptible. We also help the most vulnerable communities in the protracted crises inRakhineState, along the eastern border withChina,LaosandThailand, and in theChinStateon the western border.
Burma/Myanmar is very exposed to natural disasters – and recent history has given too many examples of their terrible impact on such impoverished nations. This is why we are also supporting disaster preparedness projects in the country, aiming to improve the capacity of communities at risk to better prepare and protect themselves from disasters.